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Analysis
Time-constrained animation in Rome

Time-constrained animation in Rome

Italy will remain resilient in face of opposition onslaught

by Antonio Armellini in Rome

Tue 20 Dec 2016

The unexpectedly large rejection of constitutional reform proposals in the 4 December referendum adds further to Italian uncertainties. The vote was not on the merits of the reform, which few had bothered to read, but on Matteo Renzi and his government. Taking stock of this, Renzi resigned as prime minister on 12 December. Attention has now shifted to the contested electoral law, which was not formally included in the referendum but contributed significantly to strengthening the No vote.

The law would grant the winning party in Italy’s lower parliamentary chamber a substantial premium in numbers of seats. It was designed to ensure Renzi an unassailable majority at the next general elections, currently scheduled for early 2018, but could presently guarantee a runaway success for Beppe Grillo’s populist Five Star Movement (M5S), with grave implications for the future of Italy and its role in Europe. There is a shared sense of urgency that the law should be amended, but differences remain as to when and how.

The anti-euro M5S and Northern League, together with the far-right Brothers of Italy, are the only parties pressing for a snap election under whatever system. The others have conflicting agendas but agree that a modified proportional system might be the only way to deprive Grillo of an absolute majority. Many would like more time to discuss the changes – a delay until autumn 2017 would allow members of parliament to qualify for generous pension rights – while declaring themselves in principle in favour of early polls. Then there is Renzi, who has been pushed to the sidelines but is angling to return. A vote in late spring would allow him to retain control of the Democratic Party (PD) and get rid of internal opposition. It is a very confused situation, though my view is it is very unlikely parliament will accommodate an election before autumn.

The government of new Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni is caught in the middle. He is perceived as weak, is reliant on a shaky majority, and is derided by many as being a clone of his predecessor. Gentiloni, however, has a close relationship with President Sergio Mattarella, who is weary of Italy’s legislatures being cut short. Mattarella has ultimate authority on dissolving parliament, would like to see a well thought-out amendment to the electoral law. The prime minister will also be able to look for underhand support from Berlusconi, who is biding time while trying to put the pieces of his Forward Italy party together.

The coming months will see an onslaught by Grillo and his allies against the purported conspiracy of the old parties. This will resonate with the electorate, but may not succeed in forcing early elections. The government will, however, be kept in a state of time-constrained animation, with the opposition happy to let it take the flak for urgent and painful decisions on immigration, unemployment and the banking crisis.

For many decades, Italy was effectively governed by the Christian Democracy (DC) party, which disappeared in 1994 following a series of corruption scandals. 22 years later, Italy finds itself governed by a homogeneous DC president, prime minister, foreign minister and former prime minister, even if they now wear different labels. While it may seem mystifying to outside observers, Italy is resilient in ways which are difficult to perceive from afar.

Antonio Armellini was Italian Ambassador to India and Nepal from 2004-8. He is a Member of the OMFIF Advisory Board, International Institute for Strategic Studies and Istituto Affari Internazionali.

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